The passing of Rabbi Harold Kushner z”l in May reminds us of the enormous power of his pen. Tributes have emphasized the impact of his best-selling book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” but his impact reached far beyond that one volume. His 13 other books, his sermons, his on-air commentary — all conveying copious Torah and humanistic insights — have left a wide beneficial footprint.
His books include “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough: The Search for a Life That Matters,” “Who Needs God,” “Living a Life That Matters,” “How Good Do We Have to Be?,” “The Lord Is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-third Psalm,” and “Overcoming Life’s Disappointments.” He also was the d’rash commentary editor of Conservative Judaism’s one-volume “Etz Hayim: A Torah Commentary.”
Kushner’s contribution to the exploration of theodicy (addressing the problem of reconciling a just God with the existence of evil) is profound. He pointed out that we desperately want “to feel that the world makes sense…, that things do happen for a reason.” We long for a “stable, orderly world.” We seek patterns that can reassure us that life is predictable.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Kushner urges us to resist the temptation to ponder “Why? Why do puzzling events occur as they do in the natural order?” This wise rabbi refers to the midrash in which God says to Moses, “It’s not your job to understand; rather, it’s your job to do something to sweeten the bitter waters” when unfortunate events take place. Note: His book is titled not “Why” but “When Bad Things Happen.”
While religion may not be able to help us understand the causes of illnesses or earthquakes, Kushner says, it can “help us to cope by seeing God’s presence in our world.” At troubled times, divinity is evidenced “in the readiness of people reaching out to the afflicted to salve their wounds not with their doctrines, but with their hugs and their tears.” God is revealed by “the human capacity for charity and goodness.”
A prime example of Kushner’s liturgical insight is his assessment of Psalm 23, ”The Lord Is My Shepherd.”
Kushner points out that each of us will walk through the shadow of the valley of death. This means we will “have to come to terms with the knowledge that someday every person will die, and that [my end] might be near.” This astute spiritual leader emphasized our mortality. “We live just one blood test away from discovering a life-threatening disease. We live in violent times, knowing that unexpectedly something might happen that could cost us our life, be it terrorism in Tel Aviv, a mass killing in Newtown, Conn., Superstorm Sandy, an airplane crash, etc.”
Given life’s fragility, Kushner identified that our challenge is to persist in “walking through the valley” rather than getting stuck in it. We must push forward in recovering from bereavement, from debilitating illness, from trauma. Psalm 23 refocuses our attention from suffering onto sensing God’s presence in our lives. Psalm 23 also reassures us that we need not fear losing touch completely with our deceased loved ones. We can keep their memory alive in our hearts. We can live our remaining years doing deeds that reflect their values.
Psalm 23 helps human beings understand that God’s role is not to shield us from bad things ever happening; sadly, they will occur, given the imperfect nature of this world. At those moments, however, God helps us “find the courage to come out into the sunshine again.” God brings us to remember that “there will be dark days…but they will not last forever.” In Kushner’s words, “Fear will assault us, but we need not be afraid.”
Another profound Kushner contribution was his interpretation of Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes. In “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough” we are reminded of the journey toward mature living. When we are young, we pursue success for its own sake. “We want to find out how far our ability will carry us,” Kushner says. At a certain juncture, we mature; instead of viewing life as a contest against others, we start to regard success differently.
In Kushner’s phrasing, “Instead of asking, How high can I climb?, we start thinking in terms of what sort of life will this effort make possible for me?” We shift from a focus on fleeting achievements of the moment to pondering, “When it is over, what will it all have meant?” Given life’s finitude, we contemplate, “What do I really want to do with my life, since I cannot do everything?”
Kushner instructs us that “there is nothing wrong with being successful…but there is something very wrong with the single-minded pursuit of goals in a way that shuts us off from other people. Only looking out for Number One ultimately leaves us alone, whether or not we get to the top.” Alternatively, Kushner posits that “we are more likely to feel whole [our true self]…when we learn that there are times for sharing, even for self-sacrifice.”
Kohelet’s message “is not merely to win; it is to grow [in soul]. Our soul is what makes us a human being. The soul is fed by our values, memories, identity, sense of humor — our unique and true self,” Kushner says. Nourishing our soul can be compared to eating to nourish our body. We feed our soul via acts of kindness, of goodness, of spiritual depth. In that manner, we feel right, a sense of completeness — a wonderful feeling inside.
Kohelet’s methodology for finding meaning in life requires seeking generativity. It necessitates finding ways to have a lasting impact, even beyond the grave. Judaism’s classical formula for meaningful living is “Plant a tree, raise a child, write a book.”
In “Who Needs God,” Kushner actually addresses the questions of who needs religion.
He identifies monotheism as the underpinning of morality. The reality of one God affirms that “that there is such a thing as right and wrong built into the human conscience…. It is not just a matter of how you feel about it.” Since the one God demands moral behavior, then good and evil do exist. Issues of moral behavior are not matters of personal taste: “We cannot decide by a majority vote that it is all right to steal and to lie, any more than we can decide that winters should be mild or cookies more nourishing than vegetables.”
Another observation is that God/religion/Judaism provide a way for truly seeing our world. Kushner insists that “religion is not a series of beliefs about God. It is an inventory of moments in our lives … in ways in which our eyes are opened to see God.” Kushner concludes that though religion can’t change facts, “it can affect how we perceive those facts.” Once you learn to see the world through the eyes of religion, you see reality differently. For example, two people can visit the same hospital ward; one will see “a series of people suffering, ill, and question the injustice of this existence.” The other, who sees the very same rooms, but through the prism of religion, will, without any change in facts or reality, “focus upon extraordinary displays of human bravery, courage by patients, and of caring — by spouses, by children, by health care professionals, by volunteers.”
A third role of God/religion is to heighten our capacity for awe. Kushner reminds us of the awesome power within nature. Psalm 29 depicts a thunderstorm dramatically moving across the land. Most of us “when home during a lightning and thunder storm, are in rapt attention to the awesome might of nature.” Yet regrettably, “we have a tendency toward boredom even with the awesome” in nature, when it exhibits less drama. We become desensitized to the beauty of a sunset or the ocean’s powerful currents. A role of God/religion is “to help us recapture that sense of awe — reverence…,” “to recapture the sense of mystery — the sacred fires — that expand the domain of humans and connect us with the domain of God.”
Rabbi Kushner also gave his perceptive interpretations of High Holy Day experiences.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are times for giving funds to people and institutions in need. Kushner affirmed that Judaism’s goal is “to bring God into the world…, to take the ordinary and make it holy.” We can transform our wealth into holiness via acts of tzedakah. The essence of tzedakah is that we give to the poor, not because we feel like giving, but because Judaism/God tells us we should. “No matter how hard we may have worked, not all of our money is ours. It is a gift from God, and God has instructed us to share a portion of it with the less fortunate,” he writes.
The “Unetaneh Tokef” (“Who shall live and who shall die…”) prayer is explained by this skilled interpreter. He tells us that God is taking an account of our deeds and judging us. This means that “our deeds count, that God takes note of our day-to-day behavior and our ethical choices [and that] what kind of person we are counts to God.”
Kushner also addressed the High Holy Days theme of forgiving one another. His thesis is that “Forgiveness is a favor you do for yourself.” We ask God to forgive us for what we might have done wrong in the past year. “We remind God that we are only human and can’t be perfect. So, too, should we forgive the people who have hurt us or offended us. They, too, are only human.”
Kushner’s advice is not to “waste your time and energy on being angry at folks who have wronged you.” Instead, “wash that person out of your hair and go forward to have the life you deserve.” He goes even further, saying that “nursing a grudge only perpetuates the offender’s power over you. He/she continues to live in your head, polluting your imagination with thoughts of getting even.” Kushner assures us that “we deserve better than to waste our energy being angry at him/her. Letting go is the best revenge.”
In his book, Kushner also comments on the meaning of fasting on Yom Kippur. Fasting concretizes the notion that if something is important to you, you should be willing to make sacrifices for it. “Yom Kippur comes with a message…that wanting something, even deserving something, is not enough to make it happen.” Fasting also demonstrates our humanity. Unlike the animal kingdom, we can conquer our impulses and urges. “We can be hungry and choose not to eat. We can be angry and choose not to strike out at others. We can be sexually attracted to people who are off limits to us and choose to restrain ourselves.”
These are but a few examples of the life wisdom that Rabbi Harold Kushner imparted. He was a talented preacher, synagogue visionary, pastoral guide, and exemplary mensch, but perhaps most of all, he was Conservative Judaism’s Prince of the Pen.
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, Ph.D., became rabbi emeritus of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell in 2020; he began there in 1979. He’s headed the Conservative movement’s International Rabbinical Assembly, the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel, and Mercaz Olami.